The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"The Lost Room"

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“The Lost Room” was written by Fitz-James O’Brien and first appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (Sept. 1858). Michael Fitz-James O’Brien (1828-1862) is one of the sadder literary might-have-beens: a talented Irish American writer who was killed at a young age in the Civil War. He left behind a series of excellent stories and thoughts about what he might have created had he lived as long as Ambrose Bierce. “The Lost Room” is an odd and powerful work of Decadent horror.

One summer night the nameless narrator of “The Lost Room” languidly inventories the furniture in the room he rents. There is a lithograph by Alexandre Calame, a haunting picture of a desolate heath scene with a cloaked figure standing at the base of an oak tree. There is the narrator’s smoking cap, which bears his family coat of arms and which always prompts the narrator to remember the trouble involved in having the cap made. There is the piano in the corner of the bedroom, on which the narrator’s friend Blokeeta, the composer, once played for a memorable night. There are the snow-shoes hanging on the wall, remembrances of his Canadian wanderings. And there is a dagger above the mantle-piece which came from the castle of the narrator’s ancestor.

As the narrator idly surveys his property his cigar burns down to his lips, and he reflexively throws it through the open window into the garden below. He goes to the garden and enjoys the cool air but realizes that he is not alone and is not surprised when he is asked for a light by a small man. After brief chit-chat the man tells the narrator that the house is “queer,” and that the other inhabitants are

enchanters. They are ghouls. They are cannibals. Did you never remark their eyes, and how they gloated on you when you passed? Did you never remark the food that they served up at your table? Did you never, in the dead of night, hear muffled and unearthly footsteps gliding along the corridors, and stealthy hands turning the handle of your door?1 

The dwarf claims to be their enemy and to have been of them once. This talk offends the narrator, and he tries to grab the speaker, but

The tips of my fingers seemed to touch a surface as smooth as glass, that glided suddenly from under them. A sharp, angry hiss sounded through the gloom, followed by a whirring noise, as if some projectile passed rapidly by, and the next moment I felt instinctively that I was alone.2 

The narrator feels an urge to leave the garden and runs back to the house, but when he opens the door to his room and runs inside he finds it changed. It is full of beautiful women and handsome men, masked, reclining on Roman couches and enjoying an orgy of rare food. They urge him to eat and drink, but when he refuses the offered food and tells them to leave his room, they laugh at him and mock his claims. The room, he sees, is changed. All of the furniture and trappings are altered, the dagger turned in to a yataghan, the smoking cap transformed to a casque, and the lithograph seemingly changed into a window on to a similar, real scene, but “still in all the substitutes there seemed to me a reminiscence of what they replaced.”3 

The narrator continues to claim that the room is his and angrily rejects the intruders’ offer to join them. One of the men plays the organ, formerly the narrator’s piano, and the narrator thinks that the man is Blokeeta himself, but the man does not respond to the narrator’s cries. One of the women offers to dice with the narrator for the room. If he wins, the room is his. If he loses, “you shall bind yourself to depart and never molest us again.”The man loses and is ejected from the room by an unseen force. Before the door closes he sees the room transform back into his room. But when the door closes it disappears, and since that time the narrator has never been able to find his room again.

“The Lost Room” has a peculiar power to it. It is not science fiction, like “The Diamond Lens,” and is not straightforward horror, like “What Was It?” It is stranger and stronger than either. The description is full, almost lush, and O’Brien skillfully builds the atmosphere of the story so that the intrusion of the strangers into the narrator’s life, and the unnerving transformation of his room, is powerful and almost nightmarish. The atmosphere is not dreamlike; the descriptions are precise, so the story feels real rather than like something out of a dream. But this makes the strangers’ appearance in the narrator’s room more powerful. Rather than being the inhabitants of nightmare, they become alien and Wrong, so their presence is that much more jarring and Other.

Of some relevance to “The Lost Story” is O’Brien’s homosexuality,

a fact that invites us to read his fiction in the context of queer theory as well as the American Gothic’s fundamental concern with the loss of identity. The central source of terror for gay Americans has been rooted in the need to hide or repress one’s true identity, to remain invisible or risk losing one’s place in society…O’Brien’s finest story, “The Lost Room” (1858), focuses on a man who leaves his room to go into a garden where a mysterious stranger informs him that he lives in a “queer” house and does not really know its occupants. The protagonist returns to discover that the room that has been his home and defined his identity has been transformed and occupied by others who soon succeed in dispossessing him, leaving him lost and alone in the final paragraph. The fear evoked in “The Lost Room” is a queer variant of the characteristically American terror of losing one’s place in the world.5 

“The Lost Room” is O’Brien’s best story, which is high praise indeed.

Recommended Edition

Print: Fitz-James O’Brien, The Wondersmith and Others. Ashcroft, BC: Ash-Tree Press, 2008.



1 Fitz-James O’Brien, “The Lost Room,” in Edward J. O’Brien, ed., Collected Stories (New York: A. & C. Boni, 1925), 107.

2 O’Brien, “The Lost Room,” 108.

3 O’Brien, “The Lost Room,” 114.

4 O’Brien, “The Lost Room,” 117.

5 Alfred Bendixen, “Romanticism and the American Gothic,” in Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock’s The Cambridge Companion to American Gothic (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2017), 40.